Those Eighty-Eights Still Love You!

The recent passing of jazz piano titan Chick Corea at 79 has tapped a nerve within me and millions of others. I’ve long had a complicated relationship with those eighty-eight notes which at times instigate, repudiate, complicate and, at best, bring me enormous pleasure and respite from the monotony and tension of that daily grind. The piano is my in-house orchestra, one I can position my hands above then instantly will a change of mood.

I’ve thought about those final months of Corea’s generous life when he seemed to be ever-present on Facebook offering instruction on pianoforte with an insatiable appetite and willingness to share his most intimate practices and endearing fascination with those eighty-eight keys to a universe absent monetary demands. Short of notice, Corea was gone, dying of a rare form of cancer in a year of incalculable human tragedy. I’m reminded, the piano comes lacking any formula for eternal life, gender-free, and dwells in silence as if a mute visitor until pressed to comment.

I’ve had cycles of discontent none lasting longer than a year or so. Decades before the recent pandemic and in the early eighties with the dominant keyboard the synthesizer and MTV fixated on one finger playing over complete command, those were soul-killing times for me and many other players rooted in keyboard traditions. I could neither afford a $6,000 synthesizer of choice nor justify downgrading my skills to a lone-note novelty player. Instead, I stepped outside music to supplement my waning enthusiasm.

This is when I focused on my second great obsession, basketball. Seven days a week, four hours a day of gym time devoted to honing and refining skills until invited to join a team from Buffalo, New York, and capturing a world championship at the first World Masters competitions in 1985. Check that off the wish list and add righteous boost to human spirit. During those years I also abandoned pop and rock and revisited my second music love, jazz, and stayed the course a good two decades - launched a record label then recorded several jazz sides.

As the decades passed, I added broadcasting, photography and journalism to the skill set which over time enhanced and revived that love affair with those eighty-eight notes. Which brings me to the current pandemic lockdown. I’ve been thinking about my dear keyboard pals; Laila Biali, Aaron Davis, Lance Anderson, Evelyne Datl, John Devenish, Elaine Overholt, Lou Pomanti and Diane Roblin and was curious about how they are holding up under the pressure and question if any have fallen in and out of love with the instrument, lost confidence, pursued an outside interest, or are contemplating a second engagement with the instrument.

“Maybe not the answer you would expect: During this pandemic, the eighty-eight notes staring at me from my living room piano have elicited a range of emotions: sometimes they comfort, sometimes they beckon, but most often they say, Wait. We will still be here when this is all behind us. The piano and my relationship to it is an enduring presence: here in good times, and in bad, “says Laila Biali.  

Lou Pomanti explains how that connection has shifted for him. “My relationship to the piano has changed in that my focus has now completely switched to the studio and making records, and away from playing. I'm happy to be making those records with artists like Marc Jordan, Oakland Stroke and John Finley, but I do feel off-balance as a whole. Now my music-making is mostly made in a vacuum. A spore-less, infection-free vacuum.”

“I didn’t touch the piano for months (except for some midi projects on keyboard). I felt the piano staring at me a lot… so I guess it was a long break, but recently have felt fresh inspiration around a new project, so maybe the break provided a needed reset. Being an introvert, I sensed a bit of relief in the quiet, the reduced city noise and cleaner air. As a society we don’t stop much, and it felt good to do that. I felt less peer pressure to have to be “doing something” all the time because a lot of us were in the same boat,” declares Evelyne Datl.

JazzFm91’s John Devenish perceives it this way, “My own 88 keys are a place to get lost in a spontaneous arrangement of favourite tunes and a place to plunge into new tunes I want to experiment with. The relationship has not so much changed as it is now focused differently. There is more purposed refuge and escape than before as a dynamic and it is so much more just for me sometimes than it has been in times before.”

Maestro Lance Anderson sees it this way. “I have found it hard to stay motivated and focused. A year ago, I would have died to have a week, let alone months to work on my chops and expand my repertoire. I have found once again that the more I investigate the more there is to learn, and the less I seem to know. It is humbling at my age (67) to be faced with even more possibilities and more horizons to explore than I had when I was twenty-five. I have come to accept that I will never be able to explore all that I would like. I will never play bebop, and I likely will never play the Bartok, Music for Two Pianos and Percussion. I likely will never play enough stride to have the easy lope of Fats Waller, and let’s not even talk about the world of Latin music that I love to listen to and would be thrilled to play more.”

Pianist and composer Aaron Davis finds that the piano offers consolation in these times. “I haven't changed what I'm playing and working on all that much, but the piano has provided solace. Maybe I'm playing a bit more Bach than usual? Bach's piano music hints at an ordered universe with musical depth and passion and continues to surprise after repeated playing. I'm referring to the Inventions, Sinfonia and Well-Tempered Clavier which are the collections I'm most familiar with. It's also nice to hear great classical players interpret these: Barenboim, Schiff and Gould being my faves.”

“I had no inspiration to play the piano when Covid-19 and lockdown started…. without live music, I lost my major source of connection and energy exchange with others.  I live alone and was feeling confused/lost. However, as it turns out, being a musician, playing keyboards has been a godsend. It is because I can play an instrument, that I have had meaningful relationships, and musical experiences with players here and around the world in this difficult time,” reveals jazz pianist Diane Roblin.

"I’ve been watching an array of keyboard videos on Facebook, a good many for beginners in amongst the 'learn to play like Elton John in thirty days,' a range of piano technique specific instructional videos. These I find helpful. Within the instructor to student advice there is a real concern for the musicality aspect of playing. What motivates a composer and how to bring a complicated or melodic passage to light.

“In 1943 the famed accompanist Gerald Moore had his book The Unashamed Accompanist published for the first time. In it, there was a favourite passage of my late mother's. She did a lot of accompanying work in her days - The passage referred to the keys as the accompanist walked out on stage as a set of grinning teeth (that's how I recall her enjoying and laughing recounting it ... maybe not those exact words but...) ... My own 88 keys are a place to get lost in the spontaneous arrangement of favourite tunes and a place to plunge into new tunes I want to experiment with. The relationship has not so much changed as it is now focused differently. There is more purposed refuge and escape than before as a dynamic and it is so much more just for me sometimes than it has been in times before,” says John Devenish.

Anderson adds, “My piano is being tuned as I write. It has been an on-and-off relationship. I have been recording a solo piano Beatles record and have done the odd performance for YouTube. So, I am turning into myself, (in both senses). I am concentrating on my creations and arrangements and trying to only play something that turns my crank. I will continue to investigate things that catch my ear, but I will only extract the element that I can use in one of my compositions. I will not have time, even though time is all I have, to become proficient in all the music that interests me.”

“In April, during Covid, I found a musical and creative outlet via the internet and network arts with Sarah Weaver’s NowNets Arts Inc out of NYC (https://nownetarts.org/mission) ..…we are an ensemble of accomplished international musicians and video artists who explore Sarah Weaver’s soulful and interesting scores of gesture, improvisation and composition. Happily, several have featured piano solos which encourage improvisation.  We performed weekly at first and now monthly…. artists are from Singapore-Denmark…. we connected in April during serious covid fear, lockdown, George Floyd, social unrest…..we have a wonderful sense of community. ... I am also now a part of some spin-off groups, “says Diane Roblin.

I’m making quiet time to sit in front of the piano in my basement this after revving up the heat I and try working on a variety of piano techniques, especially touch and feel. Playing on the pads of the fingers in combination with the tips. I’m an early riser yet for piano play, I prefer mid-afternoon to early evening.

“Every morning after I have my tea, I go downstairs to my studio and thank heaven that a few years ago I decided to give up my downtown space at Richmond and Spadina and moved to my studio home. There are only two things that have kept me sane during this time, working on records and golf. The problem is you can only golf half the year in Toronto. I'm happy to say that people are still making records and I've been busy throughout the lockdown producing and arranging several projects.

The problem I've been having is balance.  As someone who's been a professional musician his whole life, as I've moved throughout my career, I've constantly adjusted it, tweaking it, so that my life makes sense to me and makes me happy.  The last 10 years have been the combination of studio work and live work. I'm quite happy to work in the studio every day, as long as I get that juice from a live gig 3 or 4 times a month. I find that I need that positive reinforcement from an audience to reassure me that what I'm doing in the studio is valid and is positively affecting people. Yes, I'm still playing every day in my studio, but it's not the same as interacting live with a band on stage in front of an audience. Nowadays I'm finding I'm walking by my piano in the living room instead of sitting down and playing it every day. When I have my monthly gig at The Jazz Bistro with Lou Pomanti & Friends, I'm constantly working up new tunes, searching for new ways to play them, staying limber, “discloses Pomanti.

Elaine Overholt comes at the piano working mostly as a singer/ vocal coach. “The piano has always been the truest grounding element in my life. Playing from 4 yrs. old, and sometimes practicing four hours a day in my youth and at university, the piano became an extension of my soul. When times are tough, I sit down with the classics that I learned early - Bach's 48 Preludes & Fugues, Faure’s Nocturne in E flat minor, Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor, Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu, Philipp Exercises for Independence Of The Fingers”, Dohnanyi’s Rhapsody Op. 11 No. 3 and my fave ‘spiritual’ piece - Grieg’s Nocture in C, Opus 54 No.4.  These are the only ones I can still (kind of) play and I keep the music right on the piano, ready to sit down at a moment’s notice.  I been playing these pieces much more during Covid and when I do, I am taken back to a simpler time, I breathe deeper and am reminded that I am still a hell of a musician which is good for the self esteem (even though the fingers don’t go to places quite as well).  They are a complete meditation for me and bring a sense of deep joy and connection to beauty.  I can go back to the task and joy of 'finding the magic’ again rather than worrying about the state of our world.”

A piano in good shape and in tune plays wonders in the head. “I love playing my Kawai 7’ Grand, and I just had to do a track for someone on a digital, and I hated playing it. I have spent all these months on the acoustic since I have not been playing gigs. The piano is my real instrument and love, and the B3 is set-up beside it. This tuning will set-up another week of recording in my Covid studio. I very much look forward to it. I have become much more sensitive and appreciative of a well-tuned piano. I can sit and let the sound wash over me. It is my best medicine," says Anderson.

Roblin has found a spiritual companion. “It has been a silver lining for me that will continue long after Covid is over….. a great addition to my creative world. Truly the gift of being able to play the piano has afforded me this opportunity to have new connections and creativity during this isolating Covid time. It continues to lift my spirits and I am seriously grateful for it!!    (albeit tech nightmares getting to JackTrip…but I eventually got there!)”

This past year Covid-19 has left players in the company of those who either love or tolerate us, an abundance of worrisome thoughts and that keyboard staring back from across the room longing for attention and abiding love. Fortunately, the piano and I are a couple again. The pain of arthritis in the thumbs has subsided allowing me to record numerous funk and soul tracks in 2020 and plod my way through a third solo piano recording. Honestly, I’ve never thought the piano lost faith in me. It was me losing faith in myself.

Datl sums up nicely, “I heard of many musicians missing playing with their friends and I realized being a work-at-home composer, I have felt this way for many years since doing more composing, and less gigging. This time has pointed sharply to the importance of connection to community.

It has been heart-breaking to see venues shut down and so many people including many musicians lose their livelihood. After the initial shock of the new norm, I began to appreciate some of the hidden gifts in this strange time.

As hard as this has been on the music industry, it seems to me that the music industry has been broken for a while ... maybe we need a collapse for some new and better model to come about. Fingers crossed.”

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